Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Sproul: "The Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books"

I noticed Jason Engwer recently addressed R.C. Sproul's statement that the Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books. I  wrote about this a few years ago, beginning with the charge against Sproul's view:

"I've read second-hand that R.C. Sproul said Christians have "a fallible list of infallible books." Do you believe this? How does this factor into Protestant certainty?"


R.C. Sproul has made this point multiple times. I have at least three sources in which he makes this point. Probably though, the point wasn’t even Sproul’s to begin with. He was the pupil of John Gerstner, this statement might have been originally his.

Don Kistler points out:

Though Luther did not challenge the infallibility of Scripture he most emphatically challenged the infallibility of the church. He allowed for the possibility that the church could err, even when the church ruled on the question of what books properly belonged in the Canon. To see this issue more clearly we can refer to a distinction often made by Dr. John Gerstner. Gerstner distinguishes between the Roman Catholic view of the Canon and the Protestant view of the Canon in this manner:
• ROMAN CATHOLIC VIEW: The Bible is an infallible collection of infallible books.

• PROTESTANT VIEW: The Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books.
The distinction in view here refers to the Catholic Church’s conviction that the Canon of Scripture was declared infallibly by the church. On the other hand, the Protestant view is that the church’s decision regarding what books make up the Canon was a fallible decision. Being fallible means that it is possible that the church erred in its compilation of the books found in the present Canon of Scripture.
When Gerstner makes this distinction he is neither asserting nor implying that the church indeed did err in its judgment of what properly belongs to the Canon. His view is not designed to cast doubt on the Canon but simply to guard against the idea of an infallible church. It is one thing to say that the church could have erred; it is another thing to say that the church did err.
Gerstner’s formula has often been met with both consternation and sharp criticism in evangelical circles. It seems to indicate that he and those who agree with his assessment are undermining the authority of the Bible. But nothing could be further from the truth. Like Luther and Calvin before him, Gerstner has been an ardent defender of the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. His formula is merely designed to acknowledge that there was a historical selection process by which the church determined what books were really Scripture and what books were not Scripture. The point is that in this sifting or selection process the church sought to identify what books were actually to be regarded as Scripture.
[Source: “The Establishment of Scripture” Sola Scriptura! The Protestant Position on the Bible. (Don Kistler, ed. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), found in the electronic edition of Sproul’s Chapters in Symposium Volumes]
Do I agree with the statement, “The Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books”? Yes, because the heart of the statement is only meant to point out that the church is not infallible.

Sproul points out:
Roman Catholics view the canon as an infallible collection of infallible books. Protestants view it as a fallible collection of infallible books. Rome believes the church was infallible when it determined which books belong in the New Testament. Protestants believe the church acted rightly and accurately in this process, but not infallibly.[Source: R.C. Sproul, Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology, 58].
For me to admit that the Bible is an “infallible collection” is really only a way of being cornered into admitting the Roman Catholic paradigm of an infallible extra-Biblical authority. Does that therefore mean that I believe the bible contains a book it shouldn’t? No.

I recognize the Christian Church received the Canon. It does not though, create the Canon, or stand above the Canon. In other words, I see no reason to grant the Church infallibility in order for the Church to receive the Canon. The Church was used by God to provide a widespread knowledge of the Canon. The Holy Spirit had worked among the early Christian Church in providing them with the books of the New Testament. This same process can be seen with the Old Testament and Old Testament believers. The Old Testament believer 50 years before Christ was born had a canon of Scripture, this despite the ruling from an infallible authority.

First century Christians had the Old Testament, and had “certainty” that it was the very word of almighty. Clement of Rome frequently quotes the Old Testament. He does so, with the understanding that the words of the Old Testament are the very words of God. He was certain of it, this despite the alleged infallible ruling of either Pope Damaus or Trent. His use of Old Testament passages show a certainty that the words were God’s words. Or, think of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy- Paul notes that from infancy Timothy “knew” the Holy Scriptures (2 Tim 3:15): “…and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” How was it Timothy could know the Scriptures were the words of God without an infallible Church council declaring which books were canonical?

Obviously, the notion that an infallible council can only provide Canon certainty cannot be accurate. To expand this, think of all the New Testament writers: they freely quote the Old Testament with the certainty that it was the Word of God. Yet, no infallible source defined the Canon for them. A “source” definitely received the Old Testament Canon, but that “source” was not infallible, nor do I recall Rome arguing that the Jewish Old Testament leadership was infallible. Hence, I see no reason why the entirety of the Bible needs an infallible body to declare the Canon. It wasn’t needed previous to Trent, Damasus, or the pre-Christ Jewish authority.

That being said, how was it that Timothy had “certainty” the Old Testament was the word of God? It is God’s sovereign power that reveals the canon to His church, for His purposes. The people of God are indwelt with the Holy Spirit. It is they, who are given spiritual life and continually fed by its words. Jesus did this himself, as recorded in Luke 24:45, “Then He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” As to how a Protestant can have certainty on the Canon, my certainty is in the providence and work of God. Only faith will read the Bible and hear the voice of God. God used means in giving us His Canon, but like the Old Testament believers, those means don’t need to be infallible for one to know they are reading and hearing God’s word.

6 comments:

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"I recognize the Christian Church received the Canon. It does not though, create the Canon, or stand above the Canon. In other words, I see no reason to grant the Church infallibility in order for the Church to receive the Canon. The Church was used by God to provide a widespread knowledge of the Canon."

Makes perfect sense to me.

PeaceByJesus said...

That the church is fallible does not mean it cannot make an statement that is absolutely true, that cannot be false. The two issues are Rome's formuliac assured infallibility, versus how truth is established, which relates to your statement, that, "it is God’s sovereign power that reveals the canon to His church, for His purposes." The question is how.

How did Abraham know God was speaking to Him, or Moses? How were the Israelites convinced (depending upon the situation) that Moses was speaking God's word, and by which authority, being written, further revelation was tested by (Is. 8:4) Or how were the claims and authority of Jesus and the apostles established?

The answer is by God providing not only basic innate truth and natural revelation, but God supernaturally establishing men and words of God as being Divine, and progressively as well, which became the standard and it attestation which further revelation had to be proven and established by. The apostles were convincing to seekers of truth because their faith, their holiness, teaching and power was Scriptural, which in turn further confirmed the Scriptures they preached, and to which they added.

As Sproul also said, "The Christianity of the Bible is a religion that is uncompromisingly supernatural. If we take away the supernatural, we take away Christianity." http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/supernatural-faith/

The problem is that this involves subjectivity, and atheists want to examine the holes in Jesus hand with a microscope and DNA samples, while Rome offers an assuredly infallible magisterium, which proceeds primarily from Tradition and secondarily from Scripture, but defines both, and defines itself as being assuredly infallible when speaking in accordance with its infallibly declared criteria. Which renders her teaching to be de facto infallible. Though to be sure we cannot be sure how many times she has surely spoken thusly, nor the extent (and perhaps the meaning) of Sacred Tradition. Among other things.

But while God could make Himself so powerfully manifest that no one could deny Him and claim any degree of credibility, and which He has at times (but which, as the Israelites showed, does not assure faith) He generally does not. But instead He provides enough evidence (from the bombardier beetle to conversion testimonies or other miracles of grace) for the seeker with a heart that obeys the degree of true light he has to find Him, which then results in further confirmation, while allowing enough "problems" for the lost to rationalize away his unbelief, faithfully disallowing reasonable explanations while convincing himself he is objective.

As for Rome, if she had the qualities and Divine attestation of the apostles and her claims could pass the test of noble Bereans as that of the apostles did, then we could affirm her apostolic claim, though they did not promise a perpetual formulaic magisterial infallibility by which as church

But as Rome does not, and it is the preaching of the evangelical gospel with its Biblical God and Christ and core truths that effects conversions, with its Biblical transformative effects, and by which the one true church has her members (and at the most essential level establishes authenticity), then it in the pasture of such that the sheep will feed, having tasted and seen that the Lord is good. To the glory of God.

Jay Rogers said...

To me the solution is that the Apostles infallibly established the canon and the catholic church RECEIVED the canon through the early bishops. This was the view of the church fathers. It is also the view of the Westminster Confession. Why would Protestants not accept that?

Stu K said...

Two significant problems I see here.

1) The Catholic Church (and you neglect mentioning the Orthodox ought to be included here also) has no broad statement of the church being infallible. The infallibility asserted has specific qualifications (such as dogmatic decrees of eccumenical councils, etc).
2) The Sproul / Gerstner / et al position opens wide the door of anyone choosing to reject the historic Christian canon (as Luther did early, and still doubted Revelation at the time of his death). Technically, this view allows anyone to analyze for themselves and accept into the canon books not now in it, or reject books currently in it...without being able to classify them as a heretic, or even aberrant (since there is no objective standard). With that authority in the hands of every individual, major Christian doctrines may be rejected due to the books teachings them being rejected. [Remembering also that the Church's decision on canon became foundational to substantiating existing christian doctrines, and reaching conclusions on further doctrinal developments extending thereupon. ---- Technically, Sproul, et al are stuck. If they are consistent, they can't declare someone a heretic who rejects the letters of Paul, accepts Gnostic gospels, and has doctrinal beliefs reflective of that.

PeaceByJesus said...

The Catholic Church (and you neglect mentioning the Orthodox ought to be included here also) has no broad statement of the church being infallible.

Which RCs attack you for (http://shamelesspopery.com/orthodox-and-protestant-infallibility-problem), while the very premise of ensured magisterial veracity/infallibility is novel, being unseen and unnecessary in Scripture.

Tell me what souls should do when faced with a bunch of disciples and itinerant preachers who are rejected by the authorative historical magisterium of God (such as Rome claims to be) but who manifestly establish their message upon the premise that some books - which were never infallibly declared to be of God by the historical magisterium - spoke of their leader of their sect? Could these souls and their message and sect be of God?

2) The Sproul / Gerstner / et al position opens wide the door of anyone choosing to reject the historic Christian canon (as Luther did early, and still doubted Revelation at the time of his death). Technically, this view allows anyone to analyze for themselves and accept into the canon books not now in it, or reject books currently in it...without being able to classify them as a heretic, or even aberrant (since there is no objective standard).

A fallible collection of infallible books is a contradiction, for if all the collection consists only of infallible books then it is a infallible canon, but not due to being infallibly declared by a church that infallibly declared it is infallible.

The question is, could souls truly know what was of God before an elitist church (pick one) imagined a infallible magisterial declaration by them was essential for souls to truly know this? And for Truth and Faith to be passed on and preserved? At the same time, does a magisterium have to possess ensured infallibility in order for it to be authoritative?

PeaceByJesus said...

[Remembering also that the Church's decision on canon became foundational to substantiating existing christian doctrines, and reaching conclusions on further doctrinal developments extending thereupon. -

Thus since there was no infallible decree on the entire canon until after the death of Luther, then substantiating existing christian doctrines, and reaching conclusions on further doctrinal developments had to rely on a deficient foundation until then.

As I understand your premise, an infallible decree (as per infallibly-defined criteria) is essential for certitude, and which means that you know that your church possess ensured magisterial infallibility because she has infallibly declared it.